I Spent a Day at the 'World's Best Airport' and It Was Pretty Good
Singapore's Changi International Airport has more amenities than anyone could ever hope to experience in one visit, so I tried to do them all in under five hours.
Photo by Kris Mok
At roughly half the size of Los Angeles, Singapore is one of the smaller countries on the planet. But what it lacks in land mass, it makes up for in opulent, massive edifices that convey the country’s wealth, draw in tourists from around the globe, and give the tiny nation more superlatives than a high school yearbook. Though they lay claim to the world’s first double helix bridge, and its highest pool, Singapore’s crown jewel is undoubtedly its massive airport, Changi.
Named best airport in the world for six consecutive years by Skytrax, the premiere airport-ranking organization, Changi boasts amenities, eateries, and shops more in line with a luxury resort or fancy outdoor mall than a transit hub. The airport even got its own scene in Crazy Rich Asians where Constance Wu ever-so-naturally praised its butterfly garden and movie theater.
Depending on your perspective and bank account, this airport is either the pinnacle of splendor or a consumerist hell where the shiny distractions are merely there to keep you inside and funneling more money into the airport's coffers. During a recent trip to Singapore, I attempted to sample all Changi has to offer within the confines of a five-hour window.
To help me undertake my mission and get through all the pesky security barriers, the airport's press team supplied a guide. I arrived an hour before our scheduled meet time so that I could have a leisurely lunch at the terminal’s replica hawker center before going sicko mode on the amenities. I also used this unchaperoned window to check out the (inexplicably) Mr. Bean-themed fun zone and seasonal Harry Potter pop-up so that my companion wouldn’t be forced to see me creepily watching a bunch of children at play.
Belly full, I walked to meet Kris Mok, the guide who would be the Virgil to my Dante for the next few hours. Kris and I made our first stop at a free movie theater that was screening Mission: Impossible – Fallout. As I’d already seen the film and wanted to make haste, I just popped my head in for a second to catch Tom Cruise hanging off a rock, as per usual, before darting off. Next, we wandered through the aforementioned butterfly garden, where I was the only person in the room unable to get one of the bugs to land on me.
After a quick stop at a nearby koi pond and a whiskey sample station offering micro-shots, we took the party upstairs to a long bar called Long Bar, where I was served a Singapore sling that would help me through the next item on the agenda.
Changi is already touted as a destination in and of itself, but this isn't even its final form. Beyond having a fifth terminal in the works, construction is underway for a gargantuan “lifestyle destination” called Jewel that will intersect three of Changi’s terminals and be open to the non-flying public some time in 2019. At Kris' insistence, I spent half an hour watching a presentation about Jewel full of moving architectural models and statistics on parking structure capacity. I’m pretty sure I got the spiel usually given to potential investors and tried to "ooh" and "ahh" convincingly as the presenter explained how many more tourism dollars Jewel was projected to capture. Internally, however, I was grappling with the horrors of late capitalism and how Jewel would play into them, while simultaneously thinking its trampoline net walkways looked fucking sick and being kind of bummed I wouldn't be able to include them in the day’s speed run.
The Jewel spiel wrapped and we made our way to the second terminal. My phone battery was still reasonably full, but I nonetheless plugged it in to a bike-powered charging station we spotted and gave the pedals a few rotations. I likely only generated enough juice to snap a few photos at our next stop, the rooftop cactus garden.
Kris directed me to a “social tree” photo station where travelers can snap pics to be publicly displayed on a giant screen above, and can be “retrieved” during subsequent visits to the airport. I have no idea why anyone would want to do this, but I nonetheless took a pic with Kris for posterity.
Had I planned better, I would’ve been more appropriately dressed for our next stop, the airport pool. The self-imposed rules of the day demanded I take a dip, though, so after getting the all clear from Kris that stripping down to my boxer briefs would not be crossing any boundaries, I disrobed and hopped in for a short dip. I dried off as much as possible and moved on to the next terminal with only slightly damp underwear and the hope that my impulsive act would be worth the chafing to come.
After a walk through a garden of fiber-optic light flowers, I asked Kris to take a pic of me on a jungle gym. She attempted to convince me that the floor-to-ceiling glass behind it was a “viewing gallery,” but I called out her slick attempt at rebranding "windows."
The rest of the tour was a whirlwind of activity that included a quick jog on a treadmill, one round of Ms. Pac Man, crayon drawings at a drawing station, more booze, a museum about local Peranakan culture, a Romeo & Juliet-style movie projected on facade houses, and a one minute power nap in the airports dedicated nap zone. Through it all, Kris cheerily tagged along snapping pics for me and indulging my impulsive jaunts over whatever caught my eye next. We wrapped things up by eating a bunch of cookies, candy, and jerky samples from the traditional food shop facades around the perimeter of the terminal.
Our time together drawing to a close, I forced Kris to watch me sing in a karaoke booth. I didn’t know the song, but did my best to follow the words on the screen and belt out as heartfelt a thank you as possible to my companion. As I sang, it dawned on me that, despite my lefty ideals and early misgivings, I had had a great time.
Like Winston Smith at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, my resistance had ultimately been crushed and the airport had burrowed its way into my heart. Regardless of how sinister I might think this and all other monuments to consumerism are at their cores, I'm sure I'll be missing Changi the next time I'm seated on the floor of LAX, eating a bad $14 wrap while attempting to charge my phone at a broken outlet.
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